Ben Bradlee answered his own telephone.
I know this because I called him once and he answered. I was doing a story that made some reference to newspaper circulation and I remembered once having heard some pithy comment from him on the subject. So sometime in the late 1970s I called Bradlee, the Executive Editor of The Washington Post (1968-1991), to get confirmation.
The story he had told was about a newspaper’s business model. He observed that the typical big city daily was owned by wealthy conservatives and manned by underpaid liberals whose final product was “put in the hands of a 12-year-old boy with a bicycle” for distribution. Neither a good arm nor good aim were prerequisites.
Bradlee could think of no other business that followed such a pattern.
At the time, Ben Bradlee was something of a hero to me. Born to privilege, the Boston Brahmin was Harvard educated, Anglican in faith, and yet had mustered the brawn of the ink-stained newspaperman to oversee and guide the publication of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s stories documenting the Watergate scandal which would be Richard M. Nixon’s undoing.
I entered the newspaper business with a degree in journalism—something my first boss didn’t respect as much as he did the more typical entry to the business as a copyboy. But I was full of Woodward-and-Bernstein enthusiasm and it must have showed, at least enough to get an entry level position as a consumer affairs reporter with the Valley News & Green Sheet. (In the spirit of Woodward and Bernstein, I looked for a burglary in every story of consumer fraud I covered—to no avail.) The paper, which served Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, was a controlled circulation, i.e. free, paper that once had been sued for littering by people who didn’t care to find the paper on their driveways three mornings a week.
Before Watergate, Bradlee posed his first challenge to the Nixon administration on June 18, 1971, when The Washington Post began publishing a series of articles based upon the “Pentagon Papers,” which detailed the history of America’s involvement in Vietnam dating back to 1945. That day, Assistant U.S. Attorney General William Rehnquist asked The Washington Post to cease publication. After the paper refused, Rehnquist sought an injunction in U.S. district court. Judge Murray Gurfein declined to issue such an injunction, writing that “the security of the Nation is not at the ramparts alone. Security also lies in the value of our free institutions. A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know.”
Judge Gurfein’s decision is worth repeating. And remembering.
It was a decision that echoed the Founding Fathers’ demand for a free and unencumbered press that would, despite any attempts at subterfuge, prevail and establish the truths—no matter how uncomfortable—needed to maintain the republic.
My grandfather was not unlike Ben Bradlee. Although hardly a Brahmin, he was a third-grade dropout who started in the newspaper business as a child—emptying the trash, sweeping the floors, straining the lead that fed the Linotype. He set—by hand—headlines from the type cases and tightened the frames before sliding them onto the Goss press. In time, he would come to own, edit and publish four newspapers. His last paper, The Imperial Republican, was where he finished a career that featured weekly coverage of the comings and goings of his small Nebraska town.
The arrival of visitors from far and not-so-far deserved a column inch or two. The Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary were covered, their business printed for consumption. The Eastern Star was represented, along with the Knights of Columbus and the Lion’s Club. High school sports were a mainstay, as were the summer youth baseball teams. The city council was covered, its workings discussed and analyzed in minute detail, its members held up to the public’s scrutiny.
Grandad Jim Naylor, who was a diehard Democrat in a very red state, would then write a column—frequently addressing the issues of the day or recalling a fond memory of a dog he once called a friend—push the frame onto the Goss and stand watch over his effort come sheet-by-sheet off the press. He would then feed the printed sheets into the canvas-webbed folder, stopping to neatly stack the finished product in piles. He’d have a shave then from the barber across the street in a town that was a blip on U.S. Route 6, and then load the papers into the trunk of his ’48 Dodge coupe to deliver to the post office and the outpost towns of Enders and Wauneta.
He died on a Wednesday, sitting on the john—his week’s column in hand, a circled -30- at the bottom. That is the way newspapermen want to die.
There was a time when I dismissed my grandfather’s efforts. I thought that his paper covered the most inconsequential things as one could imagine. Who, I wondered, cared about Aunt Emily coming to visit her next of kin? Somewhere along the line I came to realize the importance of community, that thing that gave meaning to Aunt Emily’s visit
Aunt Emily’s visits are no longer noted. And the newspapers that once noted them are going the way of so many things we once found to be valuable.
This past week the McClatchy Company, founded in 1857 and publisher today of 30 papers in 14 states, including the Kansas City Star, the Miami Herald, the Charlotte Observer, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Sacramento Bee, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The filing will eliminate about 55 percent of the company’s debt. It will also transfer control to a group of hedge funds led by Chatham Asset Management of New Jersey.
One can only guess that the Chatham group has little passion for the news business.
McClatchy’s bankruptcy nonetheless underscores the grim reality facing the news industry amid profound transformation in its business and revenue model. According to a report from the Brookings Institution, more than 2,000 newspapers ceased production in the last 15 years. Between 2006 and 2018, McClatchy’s advertising revenue fell by 80 percent and daily print circulation fell by almost 60 percent.
The newspaper industry is in dire straits. Nearly a quarter of the newspapers in the United States, most of them weeklies, have been shut down since 2004, and about 50 percent of newspaper jobs have been eliminated in that time. Daily weekday print circulation for newspapers nationwide has plummeted by about 50 million in the last 15 years.
The on-going demise of print journalism over the past 15 years has a lot to do with an electronic media. Though easily accessed, the content is increasingly unreliable. People who rely on Facebook for their newsfeed are as misinformed about the world as viewers who rely on Fox News; they are mistaking entertainment for factual information, let alone serious analysis.
It doesn’t help that President Trump has called the news media “the enemy of the people.”
That perhaps includes Stars and Stripes, an armed services news outlet that retains its editorial independence and is congressionally mandated to be governed by First Amendment principles. This past week the paper, which was first published during the Civil War, saw its operating budget of $15.5 eliminated—the money to be “reinvested” in the $705.4 billion Defense Department spending proposal.
At my core is the heart and soul of a newspaperman. I like to know what’s going on in the world, as well as in my little corner of it. Newspapers are going the way of the horse-and-buggy and with them goes an important part of our democracy—a citizenry informed by the independent oversight of the government by a free press.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska